Data-ism book cover superimposed over a seriously ill hospital patient

Book Reviews

Why data science will be the hip profession of the future, how India broke into IT, and some challenging brain teasers from a top academic.

OneWorld

Data-ism: Inside the Big Data Revolution

By Steve Lohr, £12.99, ISBN 9781780745183

The idea of quantifying data has become firmly established in the public consciousness, with a tidal wave of ever-more sophisticated consumer technology ensuring everyone has at least a rough idea of what megabytes, gigabytes, terabytes and beyond mean in terms of capacity.

Which is all very well in terms of how many high-definition movies will fit on a home media system, or how much video on a mobile phone. When tech industry starts to talk about ‘big data’ however, what does it mean?

Steve Lohr explains with a situation that at the same time illustrates why big data matters, and is going to become important to every one of us. Early in ‘Data-ism’ he takes us to Emory University Hospital in Atlanta, where the equipment monitoring patients in a 20-bed intensive care unit is generating 160,000 data points every second that help doctors and nurses to make decisions.

Even if you doubt that doing things by numbers, however vast, is more effective than relying on the intuition of a medical professional with years of experience, it’s hard to question the idea that the more information the doctors have, the better they’ll get at saving lives.

And that’s the lynchpin of the approach to decision-making which Lohr, adopting a term coined by his fellow New York Times journalist David Brooks, describes as ‘data-ism’. It’s a mindset that he claims will do nothing less than “reshape how we see the world and make decisions about it”.

Whether it’s saving money or lives, the consensus is that the future of big data lies in enabling a layer of artificial intelligence which will exist on top of the both the digital and the physical. The next step on from Moore’s Law, it represents a significant shift from a quantitative to qualitative use of data, a transformation that changes not how quickly information can be processed - the traditional benchmark for technology efficiency - but what can be done if you can handle it in large enough quantities and innovative ways.

Lohr’s metaphor is to compare the way in which the explosive abundance of digital data powers so much of today’s economies and governments with the coal, iron ore and oil that fuelled the Industrial Revolution.

The tipping point in the 21st century is where the technique shifts from the web to the physical world. As Lohr puts it: “My reporting has been guided by the belief that if modern data technology is going to be a big deal economically, it has to go mainstream; it has to be deployed in almost every industry.”

In short, this is about exploiting what we know to shape future insight - into processes from manufacturing industry to medicine. One indication of the momentum it’s gaining is the sheer number of courses related to using data that are now offered by the world’s top universities where the people who should be the smartest are lending weight to the idea that ‘data scientist’ will in future be one of the hippest of job categories.

Lohr illustrates that it’s more than just some rise of the nerds that will make money for people who are good with numbers. It’s something that can and will be used in science, sports, politics and health. But should we care? One of Lohr’s key messages is the implication that to enjoy the advantages we’ll have to get used to relying more and more on algorithms as well as intuition in making decisions, trusting in their ability to make the best decision even if we don’t understand how they come to them.

Dominic Lenton

MIT Press

The Outsourcer: The Story of India’s IT Revolution

By Dinesh C Sharma, £20.95, ISBN 9780262028752

Schadenfreude may not be the most appropriate word to describe a history of Indian IT industry, but it encapsulates perfectly the narrative of Dinesh C Sharma’s comprehensive account of how the value of its software and services exports increased from less than $100m in 1990 to close to $100bn today.

For centuries of British colonial rule, India did much to contribute to the Industrial Revolution but benefited little itself. Today it’s a technology powerhouse capable of competing on a global scale with just about any other country.

Far from being a drum-beating exercise for one nation’s industry and a celebration of its remarkable success though, this is a thoughtful analysis of what lies behind it. And Sharma, who has 30 years’ experience reporting on technology, isn’t afraid to acknowledge the gulf that remains between different strata of Indian society, and the fact that the ‘IT revolution’ that has created some of the world’s wealthiest and most successful individuals has barely touched many who are still among the poorest.

If anything, this absorbing history belies the mention of revolution in its subtitle. Sharma establishes the argument that the foundations of India’s IT success were laid decades ago, prior to 1947 and independence from British rule, as the country’s leading scientists purposefully established the institutes that were destined to become centres of excellence for computer science and technology.

That sense of national aspiration, part of India’s efforts to achieve self-sufficiency, was coupled with personal optimism to lay the foundations on which success could be built. When the world needed software support in the 1980s and 1990s, and a supply of plentiful but relatively cheap programming labour, India was ready to take advantage.

It wasn’t all plain sailing. It took the end of over-enthusiastic state control of industry in the early 1990s to create the right economic environment for enterprise to flourish with the emergence of pioneering domestic hardware and software firms, Sharma argues. The story is a case study for any developing county wanting to break into the global technology market, with a shopping list of essential infrastructure including the satellite communication links and state-sponsored, tax-free technology parks that made the outsourcing to India of the book’s title commercially viable for foreign firms. Not to mention a tradition of technical education that seems to have gone into decline elsewhere but retained its popularity among upwardly mobile young people in India.

In 1977, India had hardly a thousand computers, today it has around 100 million and 900 million mobile phones, of which more than 100 million are connected to the Internet.

Describing this as some kind of ‘miracle’ is an over-simplification. The story is one of taking a long-term view of the importance of converting skills and knowledge into capital and wealth, and of not standing still as competitors like China emulate your success.

Dominic Lenton

OneWorld

Professor Povey’s Perplexing Problems: Pre-University Physics and Maths Puzzles with Solutions

By Thomas Povey, £18.99, ISBN 9781780747750

Less than 20 years ago, the Oxford University academic responsible for this intriguing collection of mathematical brain-teasers was a gauche teenager who found himself standing in a stairwell at St Catherine’s College about to be interviewed for a place to study physics. He’s not embarrassed to describe in his introduction the long-haired sixth-former in jeans and trainers who was so surprised to be there that he was more intrigued than nervous.

Today, Thomas Povey is professor of engineering science at Oxford, researching jet engine and rocket technology, and has interviewed hundreds of candidates himself. In his collection of ‘perplexing problems’ he’s passing on not the secrets of how to get through, but a sense of the style of thinking the process is looking for.

At its simplest, we have an ant starting at one vertex of a solid cube with side of unity length. What’s the shortest route it can take to the furthest vertex? If that’s too easy, there’s a scenario involving two astronauts playing a game of catch that involves a ball falling through solid and hollow asteroids that’s likely to have you scratching your head.

What ‘everyone knows’ about the entrance process of top universities is the idiosyncratic style of questioning that candidates have to negotiate. But as Povey makes plain this isn’t an attempt to trip up the unprepared, but to put everyone on a level playing field and see how they cope as they’re gradually pushed out of their comfort zone.

This isn’t a revision guide for university interview, although potential students may find some of the questions being fired at them in slightly different guises. What it does, and does very successfully, is explain the style of thinking and analysis interviewers are seeking. Nor is it only of interest to high-flying young scientists. Any engineer who suspects that there’s been a massive dumbing down in standards of education since their day will enjoy testing themselves.

In fact, if you know a young person thinking of studying maths or physics at degree-level, tackling one of these problems in a friendly but competitive way will give them a good idea of what would be in store for them over the course of three or four years, and prove to you whether or not today’s qualifications are on a par with the ones you had to study for.

More than 100 questions touch on most elements of physics from the familiar to more left-field topics that might take a while to work your way round to by a process of deduction.

This isn’t your run-of-the-mill puzzle book - with problems rated for difficulty and explained in full, you won’t want to work through from beginning to end, but dip in and out, perhaps flicking ahead to get a few clues as to how to tackle something when you get stuck. Povey himself likens his puzzles to toys, suggesting readers should pick up the one they most enjoy and play with it.

Dominic Lenton

History from the IET Archives

IEE’s north-eastern story revealed

The first local centre of the Institution of Electrical Engineers in north-east England was the Newcastle Local Section, which was formed in 1899. In 1919 it changed its name to the North-Eastern Centre.

The IET Archives was recently given a copy of the Section’s minute book for the period 1913-21 by a donor who had no idea how it had come to be in his attic. The book (Archives reference IET/CEN/15/1/94) includes minutes not only of meetings of the Section committee and its successor the North-Eastern Centre Committee, but also of the Teesside Branch Committee. It gives a particularly valuable insight into the IEE’s regional activities. Until its discovery, the IET Archives only held the minutes of the North-Eastern Centre dating from after 1920.

Many well-known engineers were committee members and have signed the pages of the minutes. One is Philip Vassar Hunter, who was the Newcastle Local Section chairman from 1914 to 1916 and President of the IEE in 1933, and was made an Honorary Fellow in 1951.

Appointed head of the electrical department of Merz & McLellan in 1909, he was seconded to the Naval Staff as chief engineer of the anti-submarine division’s experiments and research section during the First World War, and after the war became joint manager and chief engineer of Callender’s Cable & Construction Company. When British Insulated Callender’s Cable Co (BICC) was formed in 1945 he was named a director and engineer-in-chief, and later became deputy chairman of the company.

Jon Cable

More at bit.ly/IET_Archives

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